Countrymen Rinne, Niemi reach first NHL playoffs
Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Chicago’s Antti Niemi share a
homeland. On Friday night, the two Finnish goaltenders will have
something else in common when they make their debuts in the Stanley
The 6-foot-5 Rinne went 32-16-5 this season and hopes to use his
big frame to block the net for the seventh-seeded Predators.
Niemi, a 26-year-old rookie, took over late in the season as the
Blackhawks’ top goalie, starting the final nine games. He had a
six-game winning streak before Chicago lost in overtime to Detroit
in the season finale Sunday, knocking the Blackhawks into the
second slot in the Western Conference.
With goaltending one of the biggest questions for the talented
Blackhawks this season, Niemi supplanted Cristobal Huet as the
starter and finished the season 26-7-4.
Niemi and Rinne each had seven shutouts.
“Both teams got young goalies and the comparisons are pretty
accurate, very similar in a lot of ways,” Chicago coach Joel
Chicago won the season series 4-2 but the teams haven’t played
since Dec. 27. The 27-year-old Rinne was 1-2 against the Blackhawks
in the regular season, though he posted a shutout Oct. 29 in
Niemi, who is 6-foot-2, was 1-0 against the Predators with a 5-4
win with Dan Ellis in goal for Nashville. Niemi said he doesn’t
know Rinne well but did face him a couple of times in Finnish
league play. Rinne is from Kempele, Finland, and Niemi is from
“I never really talked with him. I played against him back home
a couple of times a long time ago,” Niemi said. “I don’t know him
too much, but he’s a good goalie.”
Since the Olympic break, Rinne is 12-4-1 with a 2.03 GAA and
.928 save percentage. He also had four shutouts in that span.
The question about both Rinne and Niemi is how they handle the
pressure of the postseason, where the crowd is louder, the lights
brighter and the play much more physical. Both teams will be trying
to create traffic and congestion in front of the net to screen the
opposing goalie and set up rebound chances.
“It’s the same thing. It’s just trying to stop the puck and
keep it simple,” Rinne said. “I mean everybody’s always asking
what I’m going to change for the playoff. I think there’s not too
many things I want to change. … I think I gained some confidence,
I want to keep going and just kind of prepare the same way I’ve
been doing so far.”
Huet, who was a backup to Nikolai Khabibulin a year ago when the
Blackhawks reached the Western Conference finals, couldn’t keep the
No. 1 job this year, and when Niemi got his chance, he seized
“I don’t know if there was a defining moment,” Quenneville
said. “We just kept alternating goaltenders for a stretch there
and he took advantage of playing in consecutive games.”
Niemi’s teammates, many of whom got into the playoffs for the
first time a year ago, aren’t worried about his lack of postseason
“He’s been great for us. It’s not a concern at all,” said
Chicago star Jonathan Toews. “A lot of us were in that situation
last year. We enjoyed it and made the best of it. It’s going to be
new for him, but we got a lot of experience in this locker
And, of course, the Predators feel the same way about their guy
“The way he finished the season, just the mindset for the
playoffs, we have no doubt about that. We feel so confident in our
goaltending situation. We know Pekka is going to do the job,” said
Nashville right wing J.P. Dumont.
Niemi appreciates his progress after signing a free agent
contract with the Blackhawks less than two years ago. He spent most
of last season in the AHL. Now he’s being counted on by a young,
talented offensive team in search of the franchise’s first Stanley
Cup title since 1961.
The Blackhawks can’t have a goaltender letdown against a team as
solid as the Predators .
“Before the season I didn’t see this coming, but for some time
I’ve known it is possible. It has come real fast,” Niemi said.
“Overall the biggest thing is getting games and getting more
confident. I think that’s the biggest deal.”
Nerves right now are not so bad, Niemi said. But as Friday’s
“I think I’m going to be able to sleep,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed
to this report.